The Beatles’ first record “Love Me Do” was released on October 5, 1962. It was a moderate success, peaking at #17 on the national music charts. Now, the band needed a good, strong follow-up song. “Please Please Me” was written entirely by John Lennon.
Early on in their co-writing careers, John and Paul had decided that every song, even if only written individually, would be officially credited to Lennon-McCartney. And so it was with “Please Please Me.” Interestingly, on the song’s original release in England, on the Beatles’ first album, it was credited as a “McCartney-Lennon” composition. After this, every co-written or individually-written song by John and Paul was credited to the now-familiar “Lennon-McCartney”.
Written at his childhood home at 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool (his aunt Mimi’s home), John was to vividly remember composing the number. He remembered “The pink eiderdown over the bed, sitting in one of the bedrooms.”
John said he had just heard a Roy Orbison song “Only the Lonely,” which influenced him to write the song as a slow-paced ballad. He was also strongly influenced by a 1932 Bing Crosby song called “Please.” In it, Crosby sings the line “please lend a little ear to my pleas.” A natural wordsmith, John was always fascinated by this double use of the word “please.”
(John was to remain a huge Bing Crosby fan throughout his life. In 1978, when his wife Yoko Ono bought him a genuine Wurlitzer 1950’s jukebox for his 38th birthday, John immediately stocked it with as many vintage old 78-rpm Bing Crosby records as he could find.)
The band brought the song to their first official recording session on September 4, 1962. When the Beatles first played “Please Please Me” to their producer George Martin, it was still a slow dirge-like balled, a la Roy Orbison.
George Martin recalled: “The songs the Beatles first gave me were crap. This was 1962 and they played a dreadful version of ‘Please Please Me’ as a Roy Orbison-style ballad.” Martin added: “But I signed them because they made me feel good to be with them, and if they could convey that on a stage, then everyone in the audience would feel good too.” They ran through six songs that day, including “Please Please Me.” It went nowhere.
The Beatles returned for their second official recording session a week later, on September 11th, and “Please Please Me” was again tried out. Martin was again unimpressed, thinking it was dreadful and much too slow. Martin told John to “make some changes,” most especially speed up the tempo.
Two and a half months later, on November 26, 1962, John returned with a pepped-up version (including an added harmonica accompaniment) and this version was recorded in 18 takes. After the “Please Please Me” session ended, George Martin called out over the intercom: “Congratulations boys, you have just recorded your first number one record.”
This optimistic line was to prove prophetic. According to each and every early Beatles book, interview, and reference, “Please Please Me” was an official #1 record. And true, the song (released on January 11, 1963) did hit number one in three of the four important music charts operating in early 1963: Melody maker, New Musical Express and BBC’s Pick of the Pops.
But it stuck at number two on the Record Retailer chart, and this was the chart that evolved into the “official” UK singles chart. The Record Retailer chart, however, was the least regarded of the big four at the time… plus the number was also #1 in listings published by Disc and Pop Weekly. However, because of the song’s Record Retailer #2 status, it is disputed to this day whether “Please Please Me” is considered an “official #1 record” (the song was not included on the smash hit Beatles compilation album 1 in 2000). And to this day, some schools of Beatle thought consider their next single “I Saw Her Standing There,” to be their actual first #1 hit.
The Beatles were to play “Please Please Me” on their first UK national television appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars in January of 1963.
Although a huge hit in England, the record was a complete flop when originally released in the U.S. “Please Please Me” was actually the first Beatles record released in America.
A Chicago disc jockey named Dick Biondi was the first-ever person to play a Beatles record on the radio. On Chicago station WLS, Biondi played the song for his listeners, little realizing his huge role in musical history. Although the song hit #35 on the Chicago Silver Dollar Survey, it never made any national record charts anywhere else.
Capitol Records, the Beatles original U.S. distributors later, were originally offered the right to release “Please Please Me” and declined. Atlantic Records were also given the offer and turned the record down. A small label called Vee-Jay decided to take a chance on “Please Please Me” and it became the first-ever Beatles record released in America, on February 7, 1963. The record was a huge flop, selling only 7,300 copies. The record was credited to “The Beattles,” their name spelled incorrectly with two Ts.
But just before the Beatles arrived in the U.S. (coincidentally, exactly one year after “Please Please Me”s original release on February 7, 1964) the song was re-released and charted at #3. By this time, the Beatles were red-hot, and already had a #1 U.S. single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand. Oddly, it was released a third time, in August of 1964 (it did not chart).
There are actually three known versions of the song, two mono versions and a stereo version. In the stereo version, John Lennon flubs the song’s final chorus, singing: “Why do I always….” instead of the actual lyric called for: “I know you never even try…” He catches himself mid-lyric, and joins Paul in the chorus, slightly, almost un-preceptively, laughing as he sings.
Already setting a musical precedent, on their first album Please Please Me, the title song is actually the final song on side one. Before the Beatles, an album was almost always a person’s (or group’s) hit song, backed by a dozen or so “fillers,” i.e. mediocre songs no one really cared about. The Beatles were the first group to make every song on an album count, not wanting to short-change their fans.
“Please Please Me,” like almost every Beatles song, holds up amazingly well. Like most of their very early songs, it captures the energy, the verve, the electricity of the early “mop top” Beatles, the pre-drugs, pre-facial hair, pre-Yoko Ono Beatles. Although a great cliche, the song is as fresh today as it was upon its original release, almost half a century ago.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was to always call “Please Please Me” his favorite Beatle song. According to Keith: “I’ve always told McCartney ‘Please Please Me.’ I just love the chimes and I was there at the time. Mind you, there’s plenty of others, but if I’ve got to pick one, ‘Please Please Me,’ oh yeah!” Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, recalled “Please Please Me” as the “first record I ever bought.”
Rolling Stone magazine placed “Please Please Me” at #184 on it’s list of “500 greatest songs of all-time.” Oh, and although it has persisted in some circles, there is no truth to the rumor/theory that John wrote the song about oral sex.